As part of my present period of hiatus, I’m taking time to renew some of my principles, including the fact that I am a vegetarian. I have been for nearly five months. For those don’t fully understand my decision, allow me a few paragraphs to explain why I am a vegetarian.
When I stopped eating meat (red meat especially) in August, it was with a singular aim: reducing my environmental impact. Prior to this summer, I had remained (at the time, blissfully) unaware of the huge environmental implications of consuming meat. A little research and a few startling facts quickly changed that. I found that, basically, we have is a situation where 89% of America’s cattle are raised from infancy in feed lots. This has two big implications.
The first is the massive amount of feed and energy cattle require as they mature– the huge amounts of grain, especially. Waiting to reach the age of slaughter, feed-lot cattle are fed a large amount of grain in proportion to the amount of human food they produce. The end result is such that for every calorie of meat produced for human consumption, seven to ten calories of grain are invested. This grain must be sown, raised, harvested, and transported to the feed lots repeatedly to sustain the animal herds. Then, once the animals are of age, the cattle themselves must be transported, slaughtered, packaged, and eventually distributed again before finally appearing in our grocery stores. Livestock production is the world’s largest use of agricultural land; each step requires petroleum and creates pollution.
It’s an oft’ quoted fact that adopting a vegetarian diet reduces one’s petroleum consumption as much as trading in one’s car for a bike. If the whole world consumed as much red meat as Americans, the world’s petroleum reserves would be empty by 2020. I can’t give up my car (though I can buy a Terra Pass), but I can give up meat.
The second implication is the result of a 1.3 billion head cattle population on a finite planet of interconnected systems. The waste produced by cattle causes ammonia and nitrate pollution of soil, rivers and water systems. Much of the manure produced by cows in Holland, for example, must be shipped from Holland because their soil and water systems have reached a point of saturation.
Moreover, as unlikely as it sounds, the standing cattle population is also a significant contributor to global warming, producing some 25% of the world’s methane: about 10 per cent of all greenhouse gases.
Global warming, incidentally, is no longer theory but established reality. According to the recently released report commissioned by Tony Blair, we must act now to curb the emission of greenhouse gases. Failure to do so will lead to a global economic failure comparable only to the Great Depression in scale and severity, as coastal lands are subsumed in glacial waters and changing climate patterns precipitate desertification and removal of arable land.
It falls on the shoulders of this generation to address this looming and potentially disastrous threat. Reducing global meat consumption is a mandate of a sustainable future. There has been a trend among developing nations to adopt an increasingly Western diet and reliance on meat. If current trends continue, there will be an estimated 4.6 billion cattle by 2050 (with a caloric intake equal to 4 billion humans). In terms of renewable resources, the Earth’s population capacity–widely estimated at 10 to 12 billion people–can be altered drastically by diet; a vegetarian’s diet requires 70% less agricultural land than a non-vegetarian.
These are just two of the more poignant examples of environmental impact, among myriad others.
Regardless of environmental concerns, I’ve discovered other distinct benefits to being a vegetarian as well. Red meat, though a significant source of protein, is also a significant source of cholesterol. There is nothing inherently unhealthy about red meat; the quantity of red meat consumed by most Americans, however, leads to the diets high in cholesterol that have been directly linked to heart disease. Packages of low-grade ground beef should come with a message from the Surgeon General: SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Red meat increases the risk of coronary heart disease and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
The corollary of eating less meat is eating more grains, fruits and vegetables. A vegetarian diet (as per my own research; contrary to some claims) is not inherently more healthy than a mixed diet. By being very intentional about food choice, however, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in my diet. I’ve felt demonstrably healthier this fall, a result, I believe, of eating more healthy and nutritious foods. Eating should leave one feeling refreshed and invigorated, not greasy, lethargic or bloated. This fall, I’ve felt better, had more energy and have been more alert. A minor cold aside, I was never sick this fall, despite living in close quarters with many others who were.
In short, I’ve found my vegetarian diet to be rewarding, both from a sense of environmental consciousness, as well as in terms of my personal health. It’s surprisingly easy– though, I must admit, I’m still tempted by the occasional hamburger, my desire to eat other meat has abated entirely. Most restaurants (the “Outback Steakhouse” being a disagreeable exception) offer vegetarian entrees. Many fast food restaurants do not, but I’ve come to see this as an advantage: just one more reason to avoid food that’s thoroughly unhealthy.
In closing, I’m very much satisfied with my decision to be a vegetarian; it is my full intention to remain one for the foreseeable future. If you’ll allow me, I would encourage you to consider reducing your meat consumption, both for yourself, and for future generations who will live to inherit our decisions.